Soundwalk Collective: Killer Road

Atmospheric soundscape architects Soundwalk Collective team up with proto-punk legend Patti Smith to breathe new life into the work of Nico.

Soundwalk Collective and Jesse Paris Smith feat. Patti Smith

Killer Road

Label: Sacred Bones
US Release Date: 2016-09-02
UK Release Date: 2016-09-02

The mythos of Nico is firmly ensconced within the fertile proto-punk world of the Velvet Underground, Iggy Pop, and even the Doors. She was an ethereal, darkly spectral presence whose Teutonic burr was both intriguing and alienating in its stentorian detachment. Over the course of a handful of solo albums following her auspicious debut as a pseudo-member of the Velvets, Nico set her enigmatic poetry to increasingly haunting and haunted soundscapes. Beginning with 1969’s The Marble Index, she jettisoned the almost twee folk of her debut in favor of a full immersion into the darker elements of pop music. Over the next two decades, she would use her singular vocals and eerie harmonium to craft a series of highly influential releases with the likes of John Cale and Brian Eno.

When she died as the result of a bicycling accident in July of 1988 on the island of Ibiza, she left behind an intriguing set of poems and music that have continued to inspire as more people began to catch up with her avant-garde approach to sonic architecture. Using this tragic event as the building blocks upon which to construct an aural tribute to the late poet/vocalist, Soundwalk Collective enlisted the help of proto-punk poet goddess Patti Smith to breathe delicate life into Nico’s words on the newly released Killer Road.

Set against a backdrop of field recordings captured on the island of Ibiza itself, the members of Soundwalk Collective (Stephan Crasneanscki, Simone Merli and Kamran Sadeghi) set about creating an audio collage of the world in which Nico existed in her final years. Having proven themselves devoted field recorders on previous works, the members of Soundwalk Collective rely on haunting authenticity to heighten the overall impact of their recordings. Like a hazy, underdeveloped memory, sounds flicker in and out, some organic, others synthetic. Birds titter, waves gently caress rocks, and immersive atmospherics all combine to serve as the natural, organic musical backbone of Killer Road.

Rather than function as a straight tribute to Nico, Killer Road creates a mood complementary to the starkness of her words. It’s a deeply unsettling approach, particularly on “I Will Be Seven”, as Smith repetitively drones the phrase, “I will be seven when I meet you in heaven.” One of many unsettling moments, “I Will Be Seven” was one of the last songs to be recorded by Nico, appearing posthumously on 1990’s Hanging Gardens. Deconstructed to its barest components, it presents a haunting picture as the specter of death looms large.

Her voice breaks as the emotion overwhelms as she intones over and over “my loneliness” on the elegiac “The Sphinx”. You can almost feel the otherworldly demonic presence that must have haunted Nico in her final, isolated years. It’s a heart-wrenching performance that only proves all the more unsettling when factoring in Nico’s own sphinx-like persona.

“Fearfully in Danger” from 1985’s Camera Obscura finds Smith re-appropriating the original’s melody and lyrics into something new and different, inhabiting the words as a harmonium drones and wheezes behind her as if played by the ghost of Nico herself. Coupled with daughter Jesse Paris Smith’s crystal singing bowls and “resonating acoustic instruments,” it lends the track a brooding presence very much in keeping with Nico’s own starkly gothic approach. Far more than a covers album, Killer Road acts as an aural eulogy to and for an underappreciated artist whose personal demons overshadowed her creative output to the point of oblivion. In Smith’s capable interpretive skills, Nico’s words take on a whole new meaning and depth.

Alternately haunting, beautiful and tragic, Killer Road is a fascinatingly immersive listening experience that requires no previous knowledge of Nico’s work to appreciate. Yet after listening to this lovingly intimate portrait, one can’t help but feel a greater appreciation for one of the most misunderstood and underappreciated artists of the period. Here her life is celebrated and explored with a delicacy and depth of understanding only a fellow poet could manage. As Smith’s voice fades out on a whispered “remember,” Killer Road proves itself a disturbingly fitting tribute to a troubled icon.

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